The exhausting struggle to find stable, affordable housing
Housing instability is a mess for school and students, families and their health
In Minneapolis, 8,000 families are on years-long public housing waiting list. Photo courtesy Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
Few things are as simple as they seem, and that includes the crucial matter of having a roof overhead that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
For openers, it’s a rookie apartment hunting move to scan for affordable housing, which is often a misnomer.
Affordable for whom?
At Five 90 Park in St. Paul, rents start at $1,096; N&E in Minneapolis, $1,385; and 1500 Nicollet Ave. in Minneapolis, $1,272.
People with that kind of money are not between a rock and a hard place.
Moreover, actual affordable housing is so scarce that — in Minneapolis alone as of December — about 8,000 families are on years-long public housing waiting list, with more waiting to get on the list. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority housing voucher waiting list has about 1,500 people and hasn’t been opened in years.
MPHA’s 6,200 apartments have repair backlogs to the tune of $200+ million that hamstrings managers’ ability to deal with concerns like mold, rodents, roaches, bedbugs and lack of heat during frigid winters.
Since 1999 the federal Faircloth Amendment has placed a cap on the number of units any public housing authority can own and operate, basically eliminating new construction. Plus there’s $26 billion in deferred maintenance, and that’s an old estimate that’s probably ballooned.
So, the situation is, to say the least, serious.
Enter unscrupulous, exploitative landlords.
Case in point: I subsisted six years until 2020 in a ramshackle rooming house and roach ranch that could have been condemned.
When I moved in, the kitchen ceiling had a gaping hole, exposed wires hanging down. An unemployed roomer lived rent free for seven months by threatening to alert the city if he was evicted.
Eventually, repairs were made, but when I left there was still no running water in the bathroom sink. There was a full floor between my ceiling and the roof, yet so much rain leaked in I woke up one morning to find my laptop was ruined.
There’s more, but you get the idea.
Then, there’s the matter of other renters.
The caretaker/de facto landlord did no screening. Consequently, violence was such that the police were called in until the place got declared a problem property — the cops came and hauled one person off on a warrant.
On top of everything, the caretaker singled me out for constant harassment.
One of his favorite tactics was to threaten to throw me out for no good reason except he felt like it.
COVID-19 proved to be a break when I dimed him out to the Office of the Attorney General, and he got both a phone call and a letter warning him to heed the moratorium on evictions.
He had to back off that threat, but the rest of his ugly behavior continued.
All that said, it was a housing port in the proverbial storm: $475 for a shoebox of a room you shared with roaches, which got into everything, but also mice. (Thankfully, my cats kept them at bay.)
At least I wasn’t in some over-crowded drug den of a shelter.
Or, even worse, one of those tent communities, at risk of assault by a neighbor, subject to police eviction any minute.
Relatively speaking, I had it better than many. There were, after all, none of the more obvious health hazards often found in substandard housing.
For instance, construction companies used lead-based paint before it was banned in 1978. It causes cancer and at high enough levels can kill.
In children, it stunts growth, causes nervous system and kidney damage and delays development.
With mold comes the risk of respiratory and digestive tract problems and skin infections. There are no legal requirements specific to mold in most Minnesota homes.
The best the law can do is require a landlord to provide a habitable apartment and make reasonable repairs.
So we make the best of daunting circumstances.
Some problems transcend building codes.
Like employment. This past June, Minnesota’s COVID-19 related eviction moratorium phase-out law expired, and evictions promptly proceeded, now climbing to 300 per week in the Twin Cities.
If your job didn’t return from the many business closures and staff cutbacks and you don’t have enough savings salted away, that’s that, and you can start packing.
With no protection at all, landlords don’t want to hear hard luck stories about tenants losing work. At one point, calls to HOME Line, which is a tenant advocacy group, increased 71%, the executive director Eric Hauge told KARE-11.
“People are calling us about threats of eviction, concerns about evictions, pending eviction filings,” he said.
If you’ve been evicted, finding a home — affordable or otherwise — is harder than ever because landlords can be choosy because of the shortage of housing.
Now consider the ugly reality of domestic abuse. If you don’t have safe, stable housing, and are regularly assaulted by a spouse or partner, you may not be able to leave because there is nowhere to go.
Or, you can wind up in a shelter and have to find somewhere to store your belongings or simply part with them. Real estate listings throughout Minnesota might abound, but leads on affordable housing for such victims/survivors do not.
I talked to Twyla Olson at Violence Free Minnesota, who said the majority of domestic violence shelters are consistently at capacity. Others can’t find staff or funding and are on the verge of closing.
If you can’t find an affordable place to escape an abusive partner, you wind up in a shelter. “The relationship between housing access and shelter capacity is symbiotic — when housing options increase shelter capacity naturally increases as well.”
The housing crisis also affects the schools. Youngsters in loving homes aren’t guaranteed an easy time of things if their parents have trouble with housing. When evicted moms and dads are constantly dancing one step ahead of the devil, struggling to find someplace within their means, it’s hardly doing the kids a world of good. Especially if it means hopping from school to school, constantly playing educational catch-up. You fall far enough behind, you have to repeat a grade.
And being homeless, moving from shelter to shelter makes matters worse.
Just imagine the red tape alone: guardianship papers, delayed school record transfers, transportation, immunization records.
Then, you’ve got other students looking down their noses, maybe bullying or ostracizing kids they see as less-than. That’s not the best learning environment for easy subjects, never mind hard ones.
Thankfully, and with the help of a $17 billion state surplus, it seems some state lawmakers are looking at housing.
DFL lawmakers released a proposal that would grant $350 million in rental assistance annually to low-income families, which lawmakers said would provide “housing stability” for 40,000 families; $750 million for housing construction, which would build or preserve 4,600 homes. Plus, hundreds of millions of dollars into state programs that aim to reduce homelessness and build more affordable housing.
Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders agreed this week to a total of $1 billion in new housing money over the next two years.
It’s a fine start, but that’s all it is.
As for me, with the help of some friends, my cat Onyx and I are living our best life at an affordable housing complex in south Minneapolis.
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